Reclaiming the Ministry of Teaching in the PCUSA

October 21, 2011

The generation of Americans growing up in the 1950s and 1960s (and their parents) might remember the weekly television program of Bishop Fulton J. Sheen called Life Is Worth Living. The winsome bishop taught Catholic values and addressed moral issues of his day to an audience of ten million viewers at the peak of his popularity. During this era, the Reverend Billy Graham also had risen to prominence as an international evangelist. For fifty years, his message was conveyed through a weekly radio program called Hour of Decision and reinforced by televised crusades and newspaper columns. These teachers of the gospel were generally revered and their messages respected even by those who would not identify themselves as believers. Through them, Americans were exposed to the basic content of the gospel delivered with integrity, humility, and conviction.

Meanwhile, Presbyterian Church membership in the United States peaked in approximately 1965, coinciding with the coming of age of the Baby Boom generation. While youth ministries by necessity flourished, and parachurch organizations such as Campus Crusade and InterVarsity were founded, demand for church-based Sunday school for adults also surged. New published curricula became available, such as the Bethel Series (by Lutheran minister Harley Swiggum in 1961) and publications from Gospel Light (founded by Presbyterian Henrietta Mears in 1933). Meanwhile, in the secular realm, educational theorists such as Jean Piaget, Malcolm Knowles, and James Fowler were contributing their seminal theories on cognitive development, the special issues related to adult education, and the unique dynamics of faith development. Out of the confluence of these events and trends, small group materials were published starting in the 1970s, making Bible study accessible to anyone.

In the decades since this resurgence in traditional Christian education for adults, the cultural landscape has changed considerably. Religious and spiritual practice in twenty-first century North America has been largely reduced to what Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton call “moralistic therapeutic deism,” and teaching is perceived to be equivalent to force-feeding geese for foie gras.[1] The challenge for the church is to reclaim the ministry of teaching—and learn how to conduct it—to shape the lives of a population that has widely rejected organized religion.

My interest in this subject is long-standing. Since the time of my commitment to Christ in 1970, I was conscious of a ministerial call and gifting to teach. Through a season as lay specialist in Discipleship and Equipping, and twenty-four years as a Presbyterian pastor focused on adult discipleship, teaching has been my calling and passion. This experiences has led me to realize that the ministry of teaching has been underutilized in the church. When a church rearranges its priorities to quiet the teaching/learning dynamic within the congregation, it is abdicating its responsibility to make fully functioning disciples.

Any Christian disciple wishing to conduct ministry in today’s world does well to put the full Great Commission of Jesus into practice (Mt 28:18-20). Jesus’ mandate to “teach them everything I have commanded you” raises an important question for twenty-first century Presbyterians, pastors, and teaching elders: Would the Church be more effective in witness for Christ—and would the PCUSA be more peaceful, unified, and pure— if it were to teach people to obey everything Jesus has told them? The question is an important one on several levels:

1. It takes the Great Commission—make disciples, baptize, teach—seriously. It charges the Church to pay careful attention to disciples’ incorporation into the community of faith through baptism and to their instruction in that faith as a matter of ongoing practice. In the PCUSA, we place great weight on the baptism of our church members, and yet in many settings we do not continue the process of making disciples.

2. The question challenges our reticence to teach people what to believe and do as followers of Jesus. Yes, we are called to teach our people what to believe and do. Enough of this irrational unwillingness to identify essentials of Reformed faith—get over it! It is no wonder that our ruling elders, who are elected from the membership of a congregation, can be so ill equipped for the decisions and ministries entrusted to them.

3. The question challenges church leaders to find new methods for teaching the faith so that the current generation, with all its foibles and philosophies, can learn and benefit from it. Methods that were effective in first-century Palestine or in your mother’s Sunday school may be old-fashioned, but variations of them may in fact engender a new receptivity. Postmodern and “religiously allergic” people, not to mention those enamored by aberrations of the gospel coming to light in the PCUSA, need a direct and fresh exposure to information in order to discover new life and serve Christ faithfully. Pastors and sessions should review the content of classes taught to adults, examine and appreciate the characteristics of their members, and then figure out how to build a bridge between content and learner. Christian learning does not happen automatically; it’s time for the church to get intentional about instruction of its decision-makers.

4. The question assumes that current teaching practice has largely failed to produce informed new disciples who can function in a worshipping community around the grace and truth of the gospel. Teachers of adults must be equipped to teach differently than they have been doing for the last sixty years. Devising effective methods is one challenge, but the most creative method in the hands of an ill-equipped teacher is unlikely to make its mark. Therefore, equipping teachers to teach is an essential assignment in the fulfillment of the Great Commission. Our seminaries can do a better job of this; our teaching elders can make the effort to live into their new title in the congregation; it’s time, my friends, to reclaim the ministry of teaching.

5. The question requires the Church to admit and to face the possible consequences of not teaching the orthodox faith to its members and those who have yet to make a commitment to Christ. Those consequences include biblical illiteracy and inhospitality to the gospel, characteristics evident in Presbyterian proceedings even now. These outcomes endanger the future of the Church itself if its disciples are not grounded biblically and therefore susceptible to deviations from the true gospel. Our people are now being tested by the winds of false doctrine circulating in our culture and in the PCUSA. Will they be able to stand firm in and for the gospel when the time comes to explain their belief?


[1] Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 162-70.

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One Response to “Reclaiming the Ministry of Teaching in the PCUSA”

  1. Derek Simmons Says:

    Mary:
    Your fire and focus could if anything could lead me back into the PCUSA fold. [But note the caveats]
    Keep up His Good Work front and center, and teach Sister, teach.
    Your Brother in Christ,
    Derek

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